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‘Daredevil’ Wants to Be the First Progressive Comic Book TV Show. Is That Even Possible?

Marvel’s longest-running Netflix series evolved in its third season. But it isn’t as easy for a show to reflect the world’s constantly evolving politics as it would like.

Daredevil Netflix/Ringer illustration

In the years between the second and third seasons of Netflix’s Daredevil, newly christened showrunner Erik Oleson slid into Marvel’s comic lair donning crimson-tinted goggles and got to cooking. Whippin’ and flippin’ the time-tested ingredients of Frank Miller’s iconic tales, The Man Without Fear and Born Again—not to mention a story line seemingly scooped straight from the Sopranos cutting-room floor—Season 3 bubbles with a refreshing mixture of lucidity and excitement. The guts and gall of Miller’s work bleeds into Oleson’s episodes: Thrilling, substantive fight scenes are packed with their own micro-narratives; side characters like Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) are gifted the full-episode treatment to refine their previously muddied backstories; and Wilson Fisk’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) gripping transformation into New York’s “Kingpin” of crime is a feast for the eyes and mind. Suffice to say, this season of Daredevil is fire. Its success is at least partly due to Oleson’s overarching purpose. “One of my goals is not to just tell a story that’s mindless entertainment,” Oleson said at New York Comic-Con last month. “I wanted the show to become part of the conversation about the world we’re living in today—to make it relevant.”

Making mindful entertainment isn’t a necessity in the twilight of TV’s so-called Golden Era so much as a tacit expectation. The times feel too urgent, and the news media too entrenched in the daily experience of our lives, for artists to avoid at least alluding to the spiraling terror of our political moment. However, since Oleson divulged that the purpose of Daredevil’s new season was to become a part of “the conversation,” it’s fair to ask what conversation it’s entering and whether its contributions to the discourse are fresh or constructive. And whether a superhero show can be that at all.

The short, unsexy answer: eh … kinda.

But first, let’s talk about trauma. The residual trauma of defeat and abandonment is felt by every key character—by Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox); by Page as a result of having killed a few dudes in her day; and by Fisk in his anguish at the prospect of never seeing Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) again due to his incarceration. Trauma is the specter hovering above every one of Daredevil’s arcs. Daredevil is perhaps the Marvel Universe’s most grounded show. Characters deal with and compound their anxieties, they upheave the lives of other hurting people, and they leave ruin in their wake. Trauma is the mood ring through which the show activates its political message. Whether reflecting a certain brand of white feminism, the uptick of massacres carried out by radicalized white men, or the totalizing force of a criminal with status, the show wants to enter the conversation by centering empathy first. But this suffering is not special. It’s common.

Karen Page is one of Daredevil’s avatars for “progressive” feminism. Deborah Ann Woll has grown adept at playing up the steady, blue-eyed determination it takes to become a headache of an investigative journalist. Late one night, while hunting down a lead in the fourth episode, Page hears a couple of brown kids catcalling a number of passersby across the street. She stops. The camera swings around her face as she slowly decides whether she’s about to go full-on white woman. She just can’t resist. Page walks across the street and up to the boys, whips out a 9mm, says she’s not about to be the “scared little girl” those dudes like to play with, and threatens to blow their heads off. It’s an instance that is cathartic for some and nonsensical for others. She doesn’t pull the trigger, but the act itself evokes the callousness of a society—specifically white women—who feel it’s their civic duty to call police on or enact violence against black people unnecessarily. Catcalling is a symptom of a larger patriarchy and it can be a relief to imagine wielding the power of oppressors. But the image here isn’t progressive. It’s the same old dominating violence and the same old gun.

In America, the same old violence is posited in a hatred of difference and carried out by angry, radicalized people. When affirmed by nihilistic, charismatic leaders, those delusions form scar tissue. It’s an indelible part of how they identify. Fisk is a brutal mix of Tony Soprano and the Carrot Cake-in-Chief. He coerces a struggling FBI agent to carry out his schemes by giving them a false sense of structure and security. One character, Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter (Wilson Bethel), is a preternaturally gifted projectilist manipulated by Fisk to kill off many innocent people for the sake of making power plays under imprisonment. Poindexter is the “lone wolf” in the devil’s spandex who infiltrates newsrooms and churches as an agent for a force we have a name for but are unwilling to say. Like many shows depicting massacres, the impact is largely felt in the aftermath: in the hospital, after the newsroom massacre, a smattering of journalists’ cellphones buzz a striking and eerie chorus signaling the individual universes of the slain. After the church massacre, the show cuts to the crumbling sanctuary and the body bags of clergy sprawled about.

I’m not quite sold, though. It might sound morbid, but the process of the killing matters because we humans have difficult times processing the shock of large-scale violence. The newsroom massacre is swift and quiet. Poindexter kills the power and slips through the office. Once the door closes, he jabs his first victim with a baton. First to the knee, then the jaw, and in three motions Poindexter wrenches, then snaps his victim’s neck, finishing him off by impaling him through the throat. He twirls, tosses a desk lamp at the next victim, clotheslines another would-be savior, and shoots an informant in the head before he’s done. Poindexter’s attack on the church during a prayer service was even more contained. He offs a few people but Karen sacrifices herself in order to save the others. The priest takes a spiked baton to the chest, but outside of that, there’s no real oomph to the devastation.

Maybe a show like Daredevil can’t realistically articulate the damage bullets do to a body. It is, after all, a TV show. It sticks to aesthetic conventions set by the glossy, tightly choreographed set pieces of its previous seasons. The fighting, the action sequences and yes, even the trauma, are forced to skirt the line between sexy and non-glorifying. Poindexter’s precision only adds to the problem. There is no time for people to beg for their lives, no huddling over colleagues for protection, no playing dead; sometimes we don’t even see the body after the damage is done. What is missing in Daredevil’s lone wolf scenes—what’s hindering it from adding something new to our discourse on gun control and mass murder—is atmosphere.

This season of Daredevil successfully cleansed the palate after an abysmal sophomore slump. Oleson imbued his show with existential crises grounded in today’s political morass, with fun and twisty story lines to boot. But the difficulty of entering political dialogue is its constancy. The conversation is always happening. You get noticed only if you say something new or interesting. Daredevil does shine a light on the isolation of dangerous radical men with the power to weaponize. Traumas are not unique; but the ones that are remembered can be. When it comes to saying something new, something substantial about lives lost or severely altered, Daredevil is just the same old violence.

Tirhakah Love is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian.